Consumer Demand for Greater Flexibility and Options Leading to Increasing Retail Innovation

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Of the many changes and forced evolutions that have been precipitated by impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the digitization of the world around will certainly be recognized as one of the most significant. It’s changed the way people everywhere consume and share information and the methods by which we communicate and engage with one another. Through the retail lens, it’s served to transform consumer preferences concerning the ways they interact and shop with their favourite brands, leading to a recent and thoroughly documented explosion in ecommerce sales for merchants across the country. In short, the digitization of the industry, which continues unabated, has gone a long way toward altering and expanding the retail ecosystem, challenging retailers’ capacity to deliver the service and experience that customers are increasingly expecting. In fact, according to Katie Swett, eCommerce Product Lead at Square, it’s an evolution that’s prompting merchants throughout the industry to reassess the traditional retail model and adapt in order to provide the Canadian consumer with the options they seek.

“The COVID-19 global pandemic has really changed the way retail functions,” says Swett. “It shifted consumer behaviour, accelerating their adoption of online channels, providing many who were relatively unfamiliar with ecommerce with a crash course, flattening the technological learning curve as they discovered the capabilities, ease and convenience of online retail. It’s changed their perception of the shopping journey, increasing their expectations concerning flexibility with respect to the way they pay for purchases as well as the ways in which their orders are fulfilled. It’s forcing many retailers to examine and assess how they service their customers, adapting in ways they may not have previously been accustomed to, developing new fulfillment methods like local delivery and introducing flexible payment options like ‘buy now, pay later’ in order to meet those increasing needs. These developments are allowing retailers everywhere to blur the in-person and online worlds into a singular and digitally-enabled experience. Two-day shipping is great. But two-hour pickup might be even better.”

Swett goes on to explain that, along with retailers’ need to develop and deliver a seamless omnichannel experience, which includes options like purchasing online and picking up in-store, ordering online for home delivery and curbside pickup, there are a number of other digital trends that have been brought about by the pandemic. She says that with greater flexibility and options comes increased adoption of new modes and channels and a deeper exploration by the consumer of the options available to them. As a result, and perhaps a by-product of the current digital revolution, people are beginning to increasingly leverage their mobile phones as a means to make purchases at checkout. It’s a trend that’s been developing for some time, recognizes Swett, but one that she believes is approaching a tipping point within the industry.

“One of the biggest shifts in purchasing preferences that we’ve experienced over the past couple of years is the Canadian consumers’ willingness to use their phones for contactless payments,” she asserts. “In fact, many customers are no longer carrying a physical wallet with the assumption that they can use their digital wallet to complete a transaction. It’s leading retailers to place an even greater emphasis on providing their customers with a seamless mobile phone experience in order to help them drive online sales. Merchants are much more aware of the fact that online ordering is supported by a great mobile phone experience that integrates and blends seamlessly into the overall shopping experience that they offer their consumers. Going forward, it’s going to be critical for retailers across the country to ensure that they develop a mobile-driven approach to commerce in order to meet this growing consumer preference.”

Photo: Square

Owning retail success

As a consequence of enhanced online sales and the plethora of opportunities presented to retailers online, Swett says that it’s important for those entering into the vastness of ecommerce to own their success. It might seem easy to some to simply put product online with the help of a third-party marketplace provider. Afterall, there are numerous examples and case studies detailing the growth and success that many retailers have experienced by virtue of doing so. However, Swett warns that, despite these instances, there is a lot that merchants are giving up when they make the decision to sell through these channels.

“It’s incredibly important today, in light of the digital opportunities available to those operating within the industry, for merchants to own their own success through ownership of their own direct digital order channels,” she says. “Similar to what happened in the airline and hospitality industry years ago, retailers are quickly recognizing this. Owning their own channels through which they sell to their customers provides them with much better control of their margins and greater control and associated opportunities related to the ways in which they market their businesses. But, most importantly, by owning their own selling channels, they own their relationships with customers, allowing them to better understand their needs and build a strong connection to the brand.”

Seamless reordering

Another trend that’s on the rise, according to Swett, is the rapid development of loyalty programs, rewards and offers by retailers in efforts to capture repeat engagement with consumers. Driven by a combination of increased competition for the consumer’s spend and an expanding retail ecosystem that offers an ever-increasing number of ways by which consumers can find the product they’re looking for, retailers are increasingly looking to loyalty programs and rewards as a way to differentiate their brands. And, although Swett recognizes this fact, she says that offering the consumer a seamless reordering experience is critical in supporting the objective of these marketing efforts.

“Many businesses understand that acquiring new customers is exponentially more difficult and expensive than engaging with existing customers,” she says. “As a result, many merchants have decided to direct a lot of their resources and efforts toward ensuring a seamless reordering experience, making repeat purchases as easy and convenient as possible. It’s essential for any merchant who puts in the time, effort and resources to develop these loyalty programs and incentives to support them with a digital purchasing experience that brings them back in conjunction with great rewards and offers.”

Realizing full retail potential 

To help merchants operating across the country compete in an increasingly digitized world, Square – one of North America’s leading financial services and digital payments providers – offers a range of software and hardware solutions that enable clients to turn their operations into profitable online businesses. Swett acknowledges how intimidating a foray into the online world might seem to many small- and medium-sized merchants and understands the hesitance in investing time and resources into a complex venture with a plethora of moving parts. However, she explains that it’s with this understanding in mind that drives Square and the work that it does on behalf of clients, helping them achieve the full potential of their businesses.

“There are many challenges related to managing a merchants’ online business. However, the two challenges that we focus on helping them solve for is in lowering the associated costs as well as filling in the knowledge gap with respect to ecommerce and digital channels. Cost has historically been very prohibitive for merchants who are just getting started with low margins. At Square, we are committed to lowering that barrier, offering merchants a free Square Online option. With this product, they pay only when they make a sale and can get up and running fast. With respect to knowledge, much of our effort is focused on reducing this barrier by not only developing and setting up these online experiences, but by also helping merchants identify the opportunities that are available to them. There is so much potential available to small- and medium-sized businesses as a result of the digital transformation that we’re experiencing. We want to help them realize it in full.”

For information concerning the ways Square and its suite of commerce solutions can help your business optimize opportunities for success and growth in an increasingly digitized world, visit

*Retail Insider partnered with Square for this content.

Article Author

Sean Tarry
Sean Tarry
Sean Tarry is an experienced writer who leverages his unique storytelling abilities to bring retail industry news and analysis to life. With 25 years of learning, including over a decade as Editor-In-Chief of Canadian Retailer magazine, he’s equipped with a deep understanding of the unique world of retail and the issues, trends, and innovators that continue to influence its evolution and shape its landscape.

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